Headed into the season, the Los Angeles Dodgers were considered favorites to win their third straight NL West title, but they now find themselves sitting in fourth place. The team activated Manny Ramirez off the disabled list over the weekend and will gladly welcome his bat back into the everyday lineup, but scoring runs has been the least of the team's worries. A lack of run prevention is the shovel that the Dodgers have dug themselves in a hole with.
For starters, the Dodger pitching staff has really struggled to find the plate. Their starters have walked 4.36 batters per nine innings pitched, which is the highest mark in the National League. It's possible that their pitchers are afraid to throw strikes because their defense isn't catching anything. Ultimate Zone Rating (UZR) has the Dodger defense costing the team 25.5 runs so far relative to average, worst in baseball. John Dewan's defensive runs saved metric agrees, knocking the Dodgers defense to the tune of -19 runs. The primary problem? Matt Kemp, who was publicly called out by general manager Ned Colletti for his poor defense two weeks ago. While Kemp did win a Gold Glove last year, the Dodger GM's assessment of his center fielder's defensive butchery is confirmed by the data.
DRS says he's cost the Dodgers -14 runs; UZR has him at -11.8, which is by far the lowest in baseball at his position. That's a staggering amount of runs this early in the season. The worst center fielders might do that over the course of a year, not over the course of thirty or so games. (For context, Vernon Wells had the worst UZR among center fielders last year at -16.6.) While there's bound to be some noise in such small sample stats, there is no doubt that the normally reliable Kemp -- who had a UZR of 3.1 last year -- has been bad in the outfield, whether judged by the eyes or the numbers. As Colletti said, "It's a shame that he would go from where he was a year ago to revert back to when the ball goes up in the air and you're not sure where it's going, or if it's going to get caught."
If the Dodgers are going to make up the ground they've lost in the early stages of the season, they must get back to some very basic, fundamental principles of the game. Pitchers need to throw more first pitch strikes and stop issuing so many silly walks, and their fielders, particularly Matt Kemp, need to start getting to more balls.
Erik Manning is a writer for FanGraphs.